Should authors stick to their native lands? I have seen several book reviewers make critical remarks on this subject in recent times, only one of which was actually directed at me. Naturally, these opinions were all negative, but their arguments are fundamentally flawed in my humble opinion.Did Terry Pratchett actually frequent Discworld? Did Tolkien spend many holidays in Middle-earth? How about Ursula K. Le Guin, did she rack up many frequent flyer miles jetting back and forth to planet Hain? Okay, you get my point.
For me, I quite frankly couldn’t give a toss where an author is from, or where they choose to set their FICTIONAL works. Admittedly, my previous examples were a bit further afield than Kansas, and so if you want to argue semantics then I’ll have to concede, but still, it’s entirely up to the author where their own yellow brick road begins and ends. With this in mind, what if the work in question is by and large, set in a very real place? Perhaps a place which the complainant knows intimately?
No big deal.
Providing that the author does their due diligence, and researches the relevant aspects of a place in order to establish some measure of authenticity, it shouldn’t matter whether they’re native, or entirely alien to the setting. I’ve noticed that the crux which usually instigates these criticisms tends to flow from matters of inaccurate dialect and colloquialisms. Yes, an overabundance of irregular terms can be jarring to a reader, yanking them from the prose or dialogue in eye rolling exasperation, this I won’t argue, and authors really do need to take care when navigating this vernacular minefield of terminology. But sometimes, it’s such a minor and harmless occurrence, that it makes me wonder if some readers simply like to piss and moan. In my own experience, I remember a reader complained that I used ‘whilst’ instead of ‘while’, and was confused as to why my insufferable English arse didn’t keep my damn dirty books set firmly on the other side of the Atlantic. Okay, that last part about the Atlantic was a massive exaggeration, but the “whilst” bit was an actual issue, along with their confusion as to my choosing a US setting in the first place. All I can say is that, if I’m immersed in a book, it’ll take more than a few minor technical differences such as jargon or regional dialect to make me rant and actually affect my enjoyment of a book.
And as for why some authors choose to branch out and set their stories on foreign soil? Well, maybe it’s because they’re so bored with the world they have dwelled in their whole lives, that a fresh, new setting is incredibly appealing to them. I recall reading an interview with John Connolly, the Irish author of the excellent Charlie Parker detective novels, which are all based in the US (mostly Maine, or Maine adjacent, but also various other US states, and even a few soirées in Europe, and once in rainy old England). And what is his raison d’être for eschewing Ireland as Parker’s local habitat? Very simple really. Because he wanted to. Because he enjoyed the romanticism of North American crime thrillers, the viscous deluge of which has been poured all over us for decades via literature, movies and TV. And I’m certainly no exception. That’s why I choose to base my books in the US (to date I only have one exception, my horror novel Heathens which is set in my home city of Liverpool), because I feel as though I’ve done enough vicarious living through various mediums to allow me to fake it believably. Plus, when I think of big city adventure and thrills, I automatically think of New York City, the definitive metropolis for so many imaginative works. And with a skyline like that, it’s little wonder, really, because Liverpool certainly doesn’t stack up to NYC in terms of scale and scope. That’s not to say great stories can’t be based in Britain, because that would be a ludicrous, and entirely moronic opinion. Off the top of my head, two authors I really enjoy, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, are quite fond of choosing Liverpool, London etc as their settings…but they’re also not shy about venturing off to their fictional representations of the US.
Disclaimer: I have not yet destroyed enough of my brain cells to even dare consider comparing my sociolinguistic shortcomings to such titans as the aforementioned authors; I was merely making a point that an author’s native country shouldn’t preclude them from setting their books elsewhere.
Wrapping a neat little bow on this musing, I’ll reiterate that all authors should do their homework to avoid stumbling too much when it comes to regional or national disparities in language. However, barring the hardcore militant knights of grammar (Hoo-ah!), should this really be such a sticking point for readers? Apart from any extreme cases of bad and/or lazy writing, should it be so off-putting as to ruin a reader’s experience? It’s a question of personal mileage, I suppose. So I’ll leave it up to you to make up your own mind, whilst I retire for the evening.
Daniel James is an author of dark fantasy, thrillers, and horror, from Liverpool, England. His character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novel, Hourglass, received a Kirkus Star from Kirkus Reviews, and was voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.